Be aware of your limits. The 26.2 miles in a marathon put you at a significantly higher risk for injury than your daily neighborhood jogs. Consult with your physician before embarking on any training program.
Start early: Conventional wisdom recommends that aspiring marathoners run consistent base mileage for at least a year before embarking on a marathon training program.
One of the most common causes of injury is building weekly mileage too soon, too fast—so don’t underestimate the importance of consistently running at least 20–30 miles a week regularly before committing to training for a marathon.
Start small: Running a few shorter races—5Ks, 10Ks, or even a half marathon—is an excellent way to prepare physically and mentally for a first marathon.
The Four Building Blocks of Marathon Training
1. Base Mileage
Most marathon training plans range from 12 to 20 weeks. Beginning marathoners should aim to build their weekly mileage up to 50 miles over the four months leading up to race day.
Three-to-five runs per week is sufficient. The vast majority of these runs should be done at a relaxed pace. You should run at an easy enough pace to be able to carry on a conversation.
When building base mileage, never increase your weekly mileage by more than 10 percent from week to week.
2. The Long Run
Your next step is to build up to a weekly long run. This should be done once every 7–10 days, extending the long run by a mile or two each week. Every 3 weeks, scale it back by a few miles so as not to overtax your body and risk injury. For example, you might run 12 miles one weekend, 13 miles the next, then 14 miles, and then 12 again before moving on to 15 on the fifth weekend.
Doing these runs at a substantially slower pace than usual builds confidence, lets your body adjust to longer distances, and teaches you to burn fat for fuel.
Max distance: Most marathon training plans usually peak at a long run of 20 miles. So where do those last 6 miles come from on race day? With proper training, your body will take advantage of the peak shape your body will be in, the rest you offer it during a tapering period, and the adrenaline and crowd support of race day.
3. Speed Work
Speed work is an optional element to incorporate into your training program. It can increase your aerobic capacity and make your easy runs feel… well, easy! Intervals and tempo runs are the most popular forms of speed work.
Intervals are a set of repetitions of a specific, short distance, run at a substantially faster pace than usual, with recovery jogs in between. For example, you might run 4 X 1-mile repeats at a hard pace, with 5 minutes of slow jogging or even walking between the mile repeats.
Tempo runs are longer than an interval—generally in the range of 4–10 miles, depending on where you are in your training—run at a challenging, but sustainable, pace. This kind of workout teaches your body, as well as your brain, to sustain challenging work over a longer period of time.
Always allow your body to warm up and cool down with a few easy miles at the beginning and end of any speed workout.
4. Rest and Recovery
Rest days mean no running. They let your muscles recover from taxing workouts and help prevent mental burnout. The greatest enemy of any aspiring marathoners is injury, and the best protection against injury is rest.
If you are itching to do something active on your rest days, doing some cross-training is a great option. Cross-training can include walking, hiking, cycling, swimming, yoga, lifting weights, or any other active pursuit that isn’t as high-impact as running.
Tapering: In the two or three weeks leading up to your marathon, scale back significantly on overall mileage and difficulty of your runs to let your body rest up for race day.
Hydrating and Fueling on the Run
Nearly all marathons include water and aid stations along the way.
If you plan to carry some of your own water on race day, buy a hydration pack or belt long in advance and get accustomed to running with it. Never try something new on race day.
While training, of course, you will be doing plenty of long runs without the benefit of aid stations. Several tried-and-true techniques to consider:
- Carry your own water using a hydration pack or belt, or with handheld bottles
- Do long runs on a short loop course, so you can stash water in one spot along the way.
- Plot your long run route to pass water fountains (but during colder months, make sure that they’re turned on).
- Stash water bottles along your route the night or morning before your run.
You’ve probably heard about the phenomenon many marathoners experience right around the 20-mile mark, commonly called “hitting the wall” or “bonking.”
Your body can only store so much glycogen—its primary source of energy during the marathon. As this level gets depleted over the course of your marathon, your muscles will begin to tire and feel heavy. While no amount of fuel consumption during the race can entirely replace your depleted glycogen, consuming small amounts of carbohydrates can help prevent you from hitting the dreaded wall.
Energy gels or chews are the easiest to carry and often easiest to digest—but a few pieces of fruit or an energy bar can also do the trick. For any run over 2 hours, aim to take in about 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour.
As with everything, make sure to test out various types of fuel on your training runs to see what your stomach tolerates best, so you can fuel confidently on race day.